How "Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer" Came to Be a Song

by Lissabeth Ross
The popularity of the song has made Rudolph the most famous of Santa's reindeer.

The popularity of the song has made Rudolph the most famous of Santa's reindeer.

Hemera Technologies/ Images

"Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer" is one of the most popular Christmas songs. It was the inspiration for a now-classic stop-motion holiday movie, and the song has been recorded by many artists over the years. Though a moving story has circulated via email about the song's origins, it turns out that the true story about the creation of the song is a little bit different than that tearjerker urban legend.

Giveaway Book

"Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer" entered the world via a promotional book. Each year the department store, Montgomery Ward, had been giving away coloring books as part of a holiday promotion. Originally the store had simply bought the coloring books to give away, but for the 1939 Christmas season in a cost-saving measure the company had one of its staff copywriters, Robert L. May, create a holiday story that was mass-produced in a staple-bound booklet. The 34-year-old May created a story called "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer." In 1939, Montgomery Ward distributed 2.4 million copies of the booklet.

Musical Adaptation

May initially didn't own the rights to the story since he wrote it as an employee, but in 1947 the rights were turned over to him, and that year the first film adaptation -- a nine-minute animated short -- was shown. May's brother-in-law, Johnny Marks, was a songwriter, and he developed the lyrics and the melody for the classic song. The original song was turned down by many in the music industry; however, in 1949, Gene Autry recorded the now-classic version, which sold 2 million copies that year and went on to become the second best-selling song of all time, after "White Christmas."

Other Recordings

As one of the most-popular songs of all time, it's not surprising that Marks' song about May's fictional reindeer has been recorded by an array of singers and performers. Various foreign-language versions exist, as well as rock and rap versions of the classic song. Other versions of the song that have had commercial success include Bing Crosby's 1950 version, Spike Jones' 1950 version, a Disney version, a Dean Martin version, a 1960 version recording by David Seville & The Chipmunks and a 1960 version by The Melodeers.

Urban Legend

An urban legend that has circulated via email claims that a penniless May grieving for the recent loss of his wife to cancer created a storybook called "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" because he could not afford to give his 4-year-old daughter a Christmas gift. The legend claims that when his employer, Montgomery Ward, heard about the storybook, it offered to buy the story from him to use as a Christmas promotion. In reality, May did test out the story he wrote for Montgomery Ward on his 4-year-old daughter Barbara. May's wife did pass away right about the time that he created the story, and he was in a great amount of debt due to her medical bills.

About the Author

Lissabeth Ross began her career in journalism in 2005 as a staff writer for the "Journal of the Pocono Plateau." In addition to writing for several different newspapers, she served as the editor of the travel publication "News of The Poconos." She holds a Bachelor of Arts in English from Rutgers University.

Photo Credits

  • Hemera Technologies/ Images